A Profound Experience from the Belcea Quartet and Thomas Quasthoff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Haydn:Belcea Quartet, Thomas Quasthoff (narrator). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.3.2013 (MB)

Beethoven: String Quartet no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.131
Haydn: The Seven Last Words of our Redeemer on the Cross, op.51

Seven movements and seven last words: I wonder whether that was the initial stimulus behind this programme. It does not necessarily reveal very much in itself – the extent to which Beethoven’s op.131 is in seven true movements is at least debatable – but, more importantly, prefacing the serenity of Haydn’s most extraordinary work for string quartet with that of late Beethoven had one both thinking and feeling, in a sense the essence of religion, in this case of Lenten religion.

The passionate fragility of fugal entries at the opening of Beethoven’s Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo sounded almost timeless, as if evoking not only Bach but even Palestrina, kinship with the Missa solemnis apparent without unnecessary underlining. Alleged purity of counterpoint may be a chimera, an ideological construct even, yet it seemed for a moment at least instantiated in the Belcea Quartet’s performance. Dynamic contrasts were ideally shaped by the harmonic ebb and flow, and vice versa. For all the austerity, humane Romanticism shone through: no hair-shirt non vibrato here. If the transition to the second movement was slightly blurred, momentum was soon regained, its D major tonality – up a semitone – sounding bright yet celestial. The third movement, itself essentially transitional though at the same time far more than a ‘mere’ transition, was handled with great care for its structural status and therefore broader meaning, preparing the way for a slow movement that was beautiful and rarefied, even if at times one might have wished for greater earthiness. Its third variation, however, offered a properly titanic mental struggle, almost a microcosm of the quartet as a whole. The scherzo rightly sounded as if the music were close to breaking point; indeed, it might readily have been taken further still along that road. Still, kinetic energy and splintering both physical and metaphysical were readily apparent. Austerity and humanity, however foreshortened, marked the transitional Adagio, quasi un poco andante, after which the vehemence of the finale, almost at times as angry as if this were Beethoven in early C minor rather than C-sharp minor mode, reinstated sonata form more defiantly than triumphantly. Moments of sweetness, of great tenderness, found their place in an intensely dramatic account.

Haydn’s Seven Last Words were presented interspersed with readings by Thomas Quasthoff. Whether they were Quasthoff’s own choice, I do not know, but they were arrestingly selected from Hölderlin, Novalis, Fouqué, Heine, Tieck, Rückert, and Eichendorff, and arrestingly delivered, the anger in Hölderlin’s Die Ehrsucht, for instance, followed by a consoling voice in Novalis’s Es gibt so bange Zeiten (the first Haydn sonata coming in between). There is of course no work remotely like this in Haydn’s œuvre or indeed anyone else’s, the singularity being not just a matter of a sequence of slow movements, not just of liturgical context, but also of Haydn’s musical response, his symphonic inspiration – the ‘original’ version was, after all, written for orchestra – yet filtered through tendencies, at least, of Baroque Affekt. Whilst written beautifully for string quartet in this arrangement, the music does not often sound like a typical Haydn quartet; nor should it. The Belcea Quartet’s responses seemed very well to understand the unusual qualities of this work. In tandem with Quasthoff, our concentration was held throughout, without the slightest fear that almost unrelieved ‘slow music’ might have one’s attention wander.

Echoes – or should that more properly be foreshadowings? – of Mozart were heard in the Introduzione. The players’ unanimity was impressive, and almost liturgically significant, in those extraordinary opening bars, Maestoso e adagio indeed. The ‘purely’ musical beauty of Haydn’s instrumental development told its own story and yet, at the same time, told those of the Cross and of Hölderlin’s preceding Geh unter, schöne Sonne. The first sonata, placed as previously stated between Hölderlin and Novalis, offered a beauty that again approached that of Mozart, albeit with a variety of the plain-spoken that was unmistakeably Haydn’s own. Echoes of Haydn’s Stabat Mater informed, knowingly or otherwise, its successor: Amen dico tibi: hodie mecum eris in paradiso, a truly paradisiacal prospect before us, its developmental ecstasy quite overwhelming in my case. The tenderness of the Grave sonata (‘Woman, behold thy son!’) and the placing of Christ’s despair (Eli, Eli, lama sabthani) between Heine’s shipwrecked man (Der Schiffbrüchige) and an excerpt from Tieck’s novel, William Lovell, proved almost as moving, prior to the simple sublimity of the fifth sonata, Sitio (‘I thirst’). Corina Belcea’s first violin, moving quietly above pizzicato strings, met with vehement, indeed passionate response: agonising and yet not without consolation. Haydn’s response to the terrible words Consummatum est! proved searing, yet classically so, and all the more movingly so for that, likewise the surety of faith, without a trace of bitterness, in Christ’s subsequent commending himself into the hands of his Father. The plight of a world left behind – at least until Easter – made for a desolate earthquake.

Mark Berry